How to overcome the top challenges facing every manager.
By Bridget McCrea
By their very nature, the best managers tend to be nurturing, communicative, interactive types known for their ability to bring out the best in their teams. To achieve this, managers must know how to communicate well, delegate authority to capable team members, round out their teams with good candidates and manage their own calendars. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law can quickly come into play on any given day when the game of “putting out fires” impacts a manager’s ability to effectively do his or her job.
“In most cases, being able to tackle key challenges in a manager’s day-to-day job comes down to strong relationships and communication,” said Wally Adamchik, president of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. “In the end, good leadership is a relationship in and of itself, and everything from getting people to show up on time to following company safety policies goes back to the quality of those bonds that managers form with their subordinates and bosses.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to achieve the right mix of management competency and employee participation. In fact, issues crop up in most workplaces on a daily basis. Managers must be able to jump into the fray and solve these issues to keep company progress moving in the right direction. For managers in the precast concrete industry, top challenges range from the universal types (delivering bad news and hiring employees) to those more specific to manufacturing (plant safety procedures). Here are the five most difficult aspects of management and expert tips on how to successfully navigate them:
1. Hear ye, hear ye – delivering bad news
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but the onus typically falls upon the manager to let the troops know what’s amiss. Maybe it’s a layoff, perhaps it’s a project that produced poor results or maybe year-end bonus checks are being curtailed due to a dearth in business. Regardless of the issue at hand, Adamchik said the manager who already has solid relationships with his or her employees – and who avoids the “evasive” approach to disseminating the news – will be best positioned to deal with the task at hand.
“The trick is to be empathetic to those who will be affected by the bad news, but at the same time extremely factual and matter of fact with the news itself,” Adamchik said. “Educate yourself on the situation and be prepared to answer any questions that may come up during the announcement.”
Dave Popple, president at the Psynet Group, said delivering bad news can be especially challenging for managers who “inherited” their positions versus being groomed for management roles, and who worked alongside the people that they’re now overseeing.
“Striking that balance between ‘friend’ and ‘boss’ can be difficult,” said Popple, who advises managers to try to establish themselves as individuals with authority. Do this as soon as possible after you’ve been promoted, Popple said, so that when the time comes to deliver negative news, employees will understand your authoritative position.
2. Getting things off your plate – delegating work
Delegation is a key part of any manager’s job, but sometimes the art of removing a task from your plate and placing it on someone else’s can be extremely difficult. Maybe your team is already overtaxed with work, perhaps you feel like no one else can do it like you can or maybe you just don’t have enough human resources to offload the responsibilities to another person.
Regardless of the reasoning, the bottom line is that delegating is both normal and necessary for managers. To managers who are struggling with this challenge, Tara Goodfellow, managing director at Athena Educational Consultants, Inc., in Charlotte, N.C., said it’s important to look at delegation as “empowerment” – not just a dumping of tasks onto someone else. Goodfellow recommended phrases like, “Hey, would you mind taking the lead on this if I set you up for success on the project?” and then taking the time to educate the employee on the task and how to perform it.
“This helps employees not only to have more confidence, but it also gives them a more positive outlook on the company as a whole,” Goodfellow pointed out, noting that employee engagement is at an all-time low in the workforce right now.
To managers looking to improve upon those numbers, she said a good first step is to simply list your strengths and then consider which non-core tasks can be delegated to a reliable employee.
“That, in turn, will help give employees more ownership,” Goodfellow said, “while freeing up the manager’s time for more strategic tasks.”
3. Filling the pipeline – hiring employees
The job market looks a lot different right now than it did four or five years ago. According to a recent Bloomberg article , companies across the U.S. are struggling to fill positions as jobless rates hover below the 5.2% to 5.6% level, which the Federal Reserve regards as “full employment” nationally. Competition for workers is prompting businesses to raise wages, increase hours for current employees, add benefits and recruit from other regions. The trend is expected to continue.
“There are spot labor shortages that probably will broaden out over the next year as the job market steadily improves,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc., in the article.
Some precast businesses have reported difficulties in finding production workers since the economy has improved. With the national economy on the upswing and companies generally more optimistic about their business prospects, finding good employees that can help a precaster scale up and tackle its work pipeline is becoming more difficult. According to Popple, one of the best ways to streamline the hiring process is to develop a “quick assessment” that can be used with new recruits.
“It shouldn’t take more than 90 seconds to assess whether or not you would hire this person, and/or determine his or her applicability for a certain position,” Popple said.
Once that initial assessment is complete, consider some of the other possibilities for those who don’t necessarily fit the mold you’re looking to fill. And don’t forget to consider why you’re hiring for a certain position in the first place, Adamchik said. For example, if a particular position is experiencing high turnover, don’t overlook the fact that it could be that position’s management ranks that are causing the mass exodus.
“Factor the supervisors into the equation,” he noted, “understanding that you may have a retention issue versus a hiring problem.”
Finally, when recruiting new workers, Adamchik tells managers to look first at their own labor pools for referrals and references.
“Particularly in challenging labor markets,” he said, “your existing labor force can serve as a great source of potential new hires.”
4. Do your own job first – managing time effectively
Running out of time before an important project can be completed is a huge issue for today’s harried managers. In fact, it’s the root cause of the “sleeping under the desk” and “take out food” epidemics that have swept through modern-day society.
This is not problematic if it happens once in a while, but if you’re doing this on a weekly or daily basis, you’re in sore need of more effective time management techniques. To combat the problem, Adamchik tells managers to do their own jobs first – before trying to take on any other work or battling any other daily fires.
“Too often, managers are getting tasks ‘delegated up’ to them by their own employees,” Adamchik said. “And while they want to be helpful, managers really need to do a better job of protecting their own time to ensure that their own agenda gets tackled.”
Acknowledging the fact that everyone is “stretched for time and dealing with full inboxes,” Adamchik said time-blocking can be an especially effective time management tool. This basically just means blocking out certain hours of the day for specific tasks and projects, such as meetings, email or strategizing.
“Other than extremely urgent tasks, nothing should come between you and your calendar when you use time-blocking,” Adamchik said.
Don’t forget to block time for personal tasks too (even something as easy as running a quick errand or dropping your children off at a soccer game), and use just one calendar to avoid confusion and frustration. Finally, using lists and agendas is another good time management tool for managers who are being pulled in different directions throughout the day, according to Popple.
“Use lists and check things off as you do them; this will help you track your progress and ensure that you’re making headway on your own agenda,” Popple said. “Seeing those tangible results can be extremely motivating and can help you prioritize your schedule and tasks accordingly.”
5. Keeping everyone safe – enforcing company policies
Being able to consistently and reliably apply and enforce workplace policies – particularly those related to plant and workplace safety – is an ongoing responsibility for the typical precast manager. Working with department supervisors, human resources and other entities within the company, managers have to help their employees adhere to and uphold those policies set forth by the firm.
“Selectively applying workplace policies in a plant is not an option,” Goodfellow said. “This is a management responsibility that has to be handled on a regular and consistent basis to ensure that everyone is on the same page and following company rules and policies.”
To make sure that happens, managers can use a variety of tools including employee handbooks that are revised and updated on a regular basis, posted policies, supervisor and employee training sessions, and disciplinary review and corrective actions that address any problems as they arise.
Managers should also explain workplace policies to all new hires – preferably during the orientation period – and describe processes that all workers must follow if they happen to see other workers applying such policies inconsistently. Goodfellow said handling this management challenge comes down to good communication, particularly in the manufacturing environment where worker safety and quality assurance are both high priorities at all times.
“Be sure to explain any policy changes or revisions to current procedures thoroughly and carefully,” Goodfellow said, who encourages managers to explain the “why” behind such changes, rather than just dictating the revisions. “Encouraging your employees to think about the positive aspects of the change can be extremely empowering for them.”
A job well done
Management is rewarding when things are going well, but it’s during the tough times that managers earn their keep and shine. It’s easy to avoid the difficult parts of the job, but the long-term ramifications are detrimental. Success in management is rooted in mastering the day-to-day tasks, earning the respect of employees over the course of months and years, and adapting to situations and preferences constantly changing. When done well, the results are worth the effort.
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.